ATLANTA – Two Atlanta area massage businesses where a gunman waged a deadly assault this week had been repeatedly targeted in police prostitution investigations over the years, raising questions about the mayor's earlier comments that the spas operated legally.
Police records show officers went to the businesses repeatedly in the past 10 years, which appears to contradict Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms' statement that officers in her city had not been to the businesses beyond a minor potential theft and that they were not “on the radar” of police. Bottoms added that she did not want to blame the victims.
Robert Aaron Long, 21, is charged with killing four women at the Atlanta spas and four other people inside a massage business about 30 miles (50 kilometers) away in Cherokee County. Long, who is white, told investigators the attacks were not racially motivated and claimed to have a sex addiction, which caused him to lash out at what he saw as sources of temptation.
Police in both Atlanta and Cherokee County said they were investigating if the killings could be considered hate crimes. Seven of the victims were women — six of Asian descent — and the gunman targeted the massage businesses despite a strip club and lingerie stores nearby.
According to a 2019 report written by a group of academics, public health experts and community organizers, employees in massage businesses that illicitly offer sex often ended up working there because they had few options to pay off the tens of thousands of dollars they owed smugglers or to support parents or children back home in countries like China and South Korea.
The authors of Illicit Massage Parlors in Los Angeles County and New York City Stories from Women Workers interviewed dozens of women who provided sex at the businesses. They said their employers sometimes offered them a place to live and eat in the businesses, which also made the work difficult to turn down.
The authors stressed not all massage businesses are involved in the sex trade. And the majority of the women they interviewed who did sex work didn't see themselves as being trafficked, instead feeling they were helping their families or themselves, said author Lois M. Takahashi, who heads the USC Price School of Public Policy in Sacramento.
But 40% of them reported that a client forced them to have sex while 18% said a client hit them or physically hurt them.
Takahashi said that for many of the women, getting arrested was an extremely traumatic process. A lot of times the women were thrust into a legal system that they didn’t understand and in a foreign language.
“They had a lot more fear of being arrested than they did of being robbed,” she said.
Police records released by the city Friday show 10 people were arrested at the two Atlanta massage businesses on prostitution charges, but none since 2013. Almost all the arrests came in undercover stings where an officer paid for a massage and an employee offered sex or a sex act for more money. The reports were first obtained by The Washington Post.
At a news conference the day after the shootings, Bottoms said, “As far as we know in Atlanta these are legally operating businesses that have not been on our radar, not on the radar of APD (the Atlanta Police Department).”
A spokeswoman for the mayor said Friday the shootings were an ongoing investigation and she expected new evidence to be discovered.
“What the mayor said was ‘as far as we know’ and that’s the operative part of that sentence, ‘as far as we know,‘” Bottoms’ spokeswoman Elise Durham said. “The comments were made less than 24 hours after the shooting incident."
All three businesses where people were fatally shot Tuesday have detailed recent reviews on an online site that leads users to places that provide sexual services.
Authorities released the names of the Atlanta victims hours before President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris arrived in Atlanta to meet with Asian American community leaders.
Soon Chung Park, 74; Hyun Jung Grant, 51; and Yong Ae Yue, 63, were shot in the head, the Fulton County Medical Examiner’s Office said. Family members identified Grant by her maiden name, Hyun Jung Kim. Suncha Kim, 69, died from a gunshot to the chest, authorities said.
Three of the women died at the Gold Spa in Atlanta, while the fourth woman died across the street at Aromatherapy Spa. The medical examiner didn’t immediately say which woman died at Aromatherapy.
Four people were killed and a fifth wounded at Youngs Asian Massage near Woodstock, in Atlanta’s northwestern suburbs.
Cherokee County authorities earlier identified the dead there as Delaina Ashley Yaun, 33; Paul Andre Michels, 54; Daoyou Feng, 44; and Xiaojie Tan, 49, who owned Youngs.
The South Korean Foreign Ministry said it helped police identify the four slain women of Korean descent and inform their families. Officials said they would help arrange funerals and asked U.S. authorities for a swift investigation to find the reason for the shooting amid an increase in violence against Asian Americans.
Georgia lawmakers last year passed a hate crimes law that allows additional penalties to be imposed for certain offenses when motivated by a victim’s race, color, religion, national origin, sex, sexual orientation, gender or disability. A hate crime is not a standalone crime under the law, but it can be used to add time to a sentence once someone is convicted of another crime.
Investigators believe Long had previously visited two of the Atlanta massage businesses where four of the women were killed, police said.
Crabapple First Baptist Church, where Long was an active member, issued a statement Friday that it was seeking to remove Long from membership, saying “we can no longer affirm that he is truly a regenerate believer in Jesus Christ.”
The church said its teaching does not condone violence against Asian Americans or women and it’s improper to view women as somehow responsible for male sexual urges.
Long waived his right to an initial hearing in Cherokee County Magistrate Court.
This story was first published on March 19, 2021. It was updated on March 20, 2021 to correct that there were 10 prostitution-related arrests at the two Atlanta businesses, and police were called to them repeatedly.
Collins reported from Columbia, South Carolina. Rebecca Santana in New Orleans contributed to this report.